A few weeks back, a friend sent me an article from Angling Trade magazine, entitled "An Influencer Rows Through It." The piece discussed the general phenomenon of the influencer in the modern business of fly fishing and, specifically, a rhetorical battle that seems to have developed around two influencers who happen to be fairly young and unapologetically female. From the description in the article, I guess this confrontation has gotten quite nasty, calling into question their qualifications because of their youth and gender.
Being an old white guy who has lived most of his life in the hyper-conservative confines of the Rocky Mountain West, I imagine I’m expected to take the side of whoever is outraged by the notion that two relatively young women could be making a fair amount of money as “influencers” while men with more years in the business are not.
Honestly, I don’t much care about that. In fact, I find the idea that these women might be attacked solely because of their age and gender to be repugnant, just as I find the notion that old white guys like me are often attacked solely because of their age and gender to be repugnant. It would be wonderful, now and then, to consider an idea on the basis of its merit rather than the identity of the person who communicates it. I know — I’m a hopeless romantic ...
But I’ll save a more inclusive rant on prejudice for another time. There was a different theme in the article that startled me. At the very beginning, the author offers a fishing vignette. He’s out with a fly fishing “veteran”— for which I read ‘grumpy old white guy.’ The writer lands a twenty-one-inch brown and turns to his veteran friend for the picture that inevitably seems to follow such exploits in modern fly fishing. The old guy refuses to take the shot, saying, “We’re starting to forget what this is all about.” The writer goes on to quote another “veteran,” who offers a different ex post facto explanation for that refusal: “This new generation of anglers, they just don’t seem to have the same sort of respect for the sport that we had to have growing up in order to make a name for ourselves.”
The need for the picture and the implications of that last quote stuck crosswise in my throat. Setting aside, for a moment, the blatant generational prejudice at the very beginning of the quote, I have to wonder when it became important for fly fishermen to “make a name” for themselves. The idea of making a profit from fly fishing probably had something to do with it, although, as one of those useless old fossils from another age, I can remember people like Joe Brooks, Ernest Schweibert, and Alfred Miller (aka “Sparse Grey Hackle”) who managed to make a spartan living on the fringes of an arcane pastime without any notoriety outside a small coterie of fellow psychotics. Maybe those earlier fishermen/communicators are to blame for what came after them; maybe they convinced another generation of fly-fishing fanatics that there was money to be made around the edges of the sport they loved. And that generation convinced this generation of the same thing. Maybe that’s why the pursuit of fly fishing is what it seems to have become, at least for some practitioners and certainly for the corporations that have embraced it— an avenue of self-promotion, a way to gain notoriety and attract a following, and, ultimately, an inexhaustible source of revenue.
For most of the five centuries since Dame Juliana’s book, fly fishing was a craft, and, in the hands of a few of its practitioners, even an art. It was personal, a commitment to a discipline that could never really be mastered, only studied with close attention to detail and undying enthusiasm. It gave rise to a small cadre of specialists who fabricated exquisite tools for the pursuit of fish, from reels and rods to the pinch of fur and feathers that decorated the hook. Only in my admittedly lengthy lifetime has the discipline become a part of pop culture and a tempting source of revenue for Big Business.
And so, somewhere along the line, a craft became an industry — and lost its soul. I can’t single out one person or entity to blame for that metamorphosis. The corporate manufacturers of tackle and gear are doing what any corporation does — maximize profit. If that means underwriting a person with little knowledge but a huge following, then I guess I can’t blame them. And in this era of electronic togetherness and personal isolation, I don’t know how else a person who discovers an interest in fly fishing would go about finding a mentor other than to search for one on Google.
Like so many of the changes capitalism has worked on our culture, this one is probably beyond any conscious control. But when one fisherman is irate because his trophy trout wasn't captured in media-ready pixels and another veteran fly fisherman implies that one of his key motives is “to make a name,” I reserve the right to mourn what’s disappeared from a pastime I’ve loved all my life.
As I consider the portrait of the fly-fishing industry sketched in this article, I’m reminded of a man I knew in Arkansas when I was knee-high to a grasshopper. He was my grandmother’s hired hand. He was lean and hard as a pick handle, weathered from many years spent in the Boston Mountains in pursuit of smallmouth bass and channel cat in the summer, bobwhite quail and whitetails in the winter, turkeys in the spring. I remember him talking to my dad about a poacher who’d just been arrested for killing twenty mallards out of season.
“Why, John,” he said to my dad, “a man like that ain’t got no heart, just a thumpin’ gizzard.”
A craft can have heart. All an industry has is a thumpin’ gizzard.